NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross conducted an interesting interview with New Yorker writer Dexter Filkins the other day, on his latest piece, What We Left Behind.
The duo covered a lot of ground, but perhaps the most interesting — and arguably consequential — comments revolved around America’s decision not to leave a contingent of troops in Iraq.
Here’s a pretty long, but interesting, excerpt:
FILKINS: …In 2011, when we were wrapping up the American presence in Iraq, it was a very crucial and very difficult moment. And the question that everyone was confronted with was, do the Americans go to zero or do they leave some troops behind? It’s fascinating the way it played out. What the senior American military commanders told me was that every single senior political leader, no matter what party or what group, including Maliki, said to them privately, we want you to stay. We don’t want you to fight. We don’t want combat troops. We don’t want Americans getting killed, but we want 10,000 American troops inside the Green Zone training our army, giving us intelligence, playing that crucial role as the broker and interlocutor that makes our system work. We want you to stay. In public they said very different things because at that point, you know, after nine years, the Americans were not very popular and the Iraqi politicians had all made names for themselves bashing the Americans.
And so then you turn to the White House and its like, well, what does the White House want? And so there were these long negotiations that went on for more than a year over, you know, will the Americans keep some troops here? And it’s fascinating because, you know, Maliki was saying one thing in private and one thing in public and then the White House was extremely ambivalent, the Obama White House. And I remember I spoke and I quote in my piece one of the American ambassadors at the time, James Jeffrey, and he said we got no guidance from the White House. So we would literally sit across Maliki and Maliki would say, you know, what do I got to sell to my people? How many troops do you guys want to leave here? And he said we had no answer for him because we didn’t get any guidance from the White House. (Emphasis mine.)
Filkins then goes on to say that part of the reason this ultimately didn’t happen — a completely understandable reason (as far as I’m concerned) — is that Iraq refused to grant American soldiers immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
GROSS: Do you think it would’ve made a difference had we been able to keep 5,000 troops in Iraq?
FILKINS: You know, we’ll never know, right? And so it’s hard to say. Personally, I think that that would’ve made an enormous difference. And I think if you talk to a lot of American and Western officials who were there and a lot of Iraqi leaders today, they say pretty much the same thing, which is if you just had 5,000 or 10,000 American troops here, say, like, you know, we’ve had 60,000 troops in Korea for however many years, 60 years.
And nobody complains about them because none of them get killed. If you just had left 5,000 or 10,000 troops here, that would’ve given the United States kind of a stake in the outcome of Iraq and you would’ve been engaged. And you would’ve had enormous influence and you could’ve played that role as kind of the broker, as the person who could sort of help the Iraqi political system function. (Emphasis mine.)
Read the full interview here.